A viral infection. A race for a cure. Growing global fear. It seems like a storybook. Post-apocalyptic media forged our response to the novel coronavirus. Perhaps this brave new world seems so much like a dream because it is hauntingly familiar.
Post-apocalyptic fiction has been around for as long as we can remember. In fact, many long-time consumers of the genre go all the way back to Mary Shelley’s 1826 novel “The Last Man,” often considered the first true novel to trace a modern apocalypse. Coincidentally, the work detailed a devastating plague. More recent novels such as “The Hunger Games” (2008), “Bird Box” (2014) and “Divergent” (2011) – along with their respective movie adaptations – have recycled the age-old formula for a new generation.
It was strange, then, when these concepts came to life with the onset of COVID-19. News media began to read almost exactly like our favorite teenage book series. Maybe that is why Americans reacted in the manner we have.
One of the defining characteristics of these works of fiction is control. In “The Hunger Games,” Katniss Everdeen battles a corrupt government bent on the absolute domination of its subjects. “Divergent” follows a similar pattern, and even “Bird Box” exhibits underlying themes of control as its protagonist raises her children. In essence, when things get bad, it is human nature to want to be in the driver’s seat. One of the ways we find control in these days is panic buying.
Dimitrios Tsivrikos, consumer and business psychologist at University College London, seemed to agree with this phenomenon in an interview with Al Jazeera.
“Consumers are trying to gain control and panic buying is essentially our attempt to be in control of a situation. It’s quite important to feel that at least we are doing something, we are being proactive – and panic buying is exactly that,” Tsivrikos said.
And yet, panic buying extends far beyond simply toilet paper. In Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman’s article in Foreign Affairs titled “Will the Coronavirus End Globalization as We Know It?,” Farrell and Newman outline the shortages in medical supplies because of global panic buying. First, it was China that bought up every medical mask it could find. Then, Russia, Turkey and Germany banned the exportation of masks and ventilators.
“These beggar-thy-neighbor dynamics threaten to escalate as the crisis deepens, choking off global supply chains for urgent medical supplies,” Farrell and Newman wrote.
Although everyone needs access to supplies, it seems that only the first ones to the market are allowed to have them. It is terrifying that the world could devolve into such selfishness so quickly.
Yet, we should almost expect that devolution — we have seen it before. We see it in “The Society” (2019) — a Netflix series where all the adults disappear in a small town – as teenagers fight for the best materials, foods and homes.
It is concerning that we simply follow what we believe an apocalypse should look like according to fictional novels and films instead of looking for a creative and practical solution. And that, perhaps, is the core of the issue. Our society is permeated by fictional media, and we seem to have forgotten how to deal with reality. The reality, here, is that building a cohesive response from everyday people simply social distancing and consuming only what they need is far more effective than an every-man-for-himself impulse in a time of crisis.
The world is not ending. The virus is a difficult situation, but we have dealt with global disaster before. Our job is to remember that every time we walk into a Walmart.
In these times of darkness, I remember a quote from The Walking Dead’s Dale Horvath: “The world we know is gone, but keeping our humanity? That’s a choice.”
It seems that much of our response to the pandemic has been inhumane and selfish. Keeping our humanity can be difficult when we want to retain control of our ever-changing and serious situation. Yet retaining the beauty of our humanity – our selflessness and capacity to love those in need – is exactly what we need in a crisis.